Garden Books

Cactus & Succulents for Cold Climates

As a child I watched movies featuring cowboys, Native Americans and outlaws riding across a desert background filled with prickly pear, barrel and Sequaro cacti. As an adult gardening fanatic, I never considered growing those succulents of the dry Southwest in the Triangle’s wet Southeastern climate.

Two events changed my mind. First, a walk through the Xeric Garden at the JC Raulston Arboretum exposed me to a beautiful and unusual group of dry-weather plants flourishing amid berms and raised beds covered with gravel. Secondly, the book, Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates by Leo J. Chance (Timber Press, 2013), offered me an excellent introduction to “274 outstanding species” from which to choose.

For thirty years, Leo J. Chance, the author, has been growing cacti and succulents in Colorado’s climate, which can reach 20 degrees below zero in the winter. When he became interested in these plants, almost none were available for gardeners outside of the plants’ drier and warmer natural environments. He felt challenged to discover how and which plants would succeed in Colorado. His knowledge acquired from years of experimenting with these species is expressed in this book.

In the first chapter, Chance gives these important rules for raising dry-land plants in winter-wet climates such as the Triangle’s weather: provide full sun in summer and winter; allow perfect drainage; water every week in spring and summer if no rain falls; mulch with a layer of crushed gravel; and stop watering in autumn to force dormancy.

In a section on “how and where” to plant, he wisely recommends moving large spiky plants by wrapping their stems with newspaper twisted into ropes and using kitchen tongs to handle the smaller plants. Chance also gives exact directions on how to construct a berm to provide the required drainage.

The plants Chance recommends are primarily cacti, yucca and agaves, but I found the few sedum and “choice small succulents” of the Pursiane family to be the most appealing for my small garden spaces. Companion plants for variety and more color in a dry-land garden include wildflowers, grasses and xeric trees, and shrubs.  Chance provides information about the relative difficulty of growing various plants and advises readers about which plants do better in containers.  He recommends large garden spaces for particularly thorny plants. A small photograph that illustrates their colorful blossoms and unique spine structures accompanies most of the plants described.

After reading this book, I progressed from no understanding of dry-land plant needs to being able to confidently consider a possible few to grow in pots in the sunniest part of my small yard. Since all the plants are listed by Latin name, I can easily identify them in either local nurseries or when ordering from the listed plant sources provided in this volume. If these plants in Colorado can survive, they should thrive in the Triangle.

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.